Friday, May 15, 2015

Francis Chichester

"To the question, "When were your spirits at the lowest ebb?" the obvious answer seemed to be, "When the gin gave out."

When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with leukemia.  While the prognosis was not shared with me, I could tell from my parents' faces that something serious had just been imparted to them.  I was then placed in the hospital for seven days.  As the facility was new and still under construction, there were no separate areas for children or adults, so I found myself in the cancer ward with a collection of adult men, all of whom seemed to smoke.  During that week, which ended when it was discovered that the diagnosis was in error [I was suffering from anemia, which was easily treated], I was taught how to play poker by my ward mates, witnessed death for the first time [the fellow in the bed next to mine], and decided that personal complacency was the enemy of life.  As an educational philosopher once said, when asked for a suggestion for a curriculum for elementary school children, "Teach them that they're going to die.  Then they'll cherish the life they have."  This is a lesson that others have learned, as well, and throughout history.  One such individual was Sir Francis Chichester.

I am assured by the children who have grown up in my various houses that being the offspring or ward of a clergyman is not the most exciting thing in the world.  While I was always tempted to respond, "Yeah, you ought to see how boring it is being a member of the clergy", I would point out to them how lucky they were to have the association of so many interesting people and been to some rather interesting places.  While that didn't mollify them at the time, they now, upon mature reflection, admit that was the case.

Francis Chichester's father was a priest in the Church of England and he, too, felt that creeping boredom.  Born in 1901, his parents sought to address it by sending him to boarding school [at the age of six!] and then to college during the First World War in order to study for the ministry.  That didn't quite satisfy him and, upon the war's completion, he emigrated to New Zealand and created a mildly successful property development company which, as with so many, dissolved into bankruptcy during the Great Depression.

Not to be daunted by this minor reversal, Chichester returned to England in 1929 and, on a lark, purchased a de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth biplane and took flying lessons.  Hoping to turn that into a business back in New Zealand, Chichester decided to do what had never been done and fly from the United Kingdom to Australia, a feat he accomplished in 180 hours after a slight delay caused by crashing in Libya.  By the time he landed in Sydney harbor, Chichester had become a sensation with the local press and, after some careful negotiation, published a memoir of the adventure in his book Solo to Sydney.

Encouraged by his new-found fame, Chichester decided to equip the plane with floats and attempt a solo flight around the world.  He made it as far as Japan when he collided with telegraph wires, crashed, and spent the next five years recovering from the breaking several greater and lesser bones.

Once cleared to fly again, in 1936, Chichester became the first to fly across Asia from Sydney to London after which he began carefully to plan a solo, round-the-world flight.  Before those plans, and their funding, were complete, Germany invaded Poland and the next six years were consumed by world-wide conflagration.  While Chichester, record-setting and highly experienced pilot, was rejected for service in the Royal Air Force [he was nearsighted] as a pilot and officer, he was made the chief navigation instructor at the RAF's training school, mainly due to his ability to use a nautical sextant while in flight.  By the end of the war, at the age of 44, married with children and beginning to feel the effects of his injuries, Chichester decided to retire from aviation records and settle down to run a map and chart business.  Besides, the age of jets had begun and that meant the days of seat-of-the-pants, open cockpit flying were over.

Ordinarily, this is where his story would begin its gradual conclusion.  However, in 1958 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, refused the common surgery, became a vegetarian, and began to look for something new to occupy, before he died, his un-slaked sense of adventure.  As flying no longer interested him, and as he had purchased a mid-sized sailboat for weekend fun, Chichester began to research the standing records of solo sailing and planned his next adventure.  Things had to be organized quickly however, as he had been given only six months to live.  [That turned out to be a gross miscalculation, by the way.]

Warming up by competing in two transatlantic races in 1960 and 1964 in his boat, the Gipsy Moth III, winning the first and placing in the second, Chichester commissioned the 54-foot Gipsy Moth IV in 1965 to be built to his exacting design.  As his intention was to sail solo around the world faster than anyone ever had before, the boat needed to have special qualities such as a sail-based self-steering guidance system, the ability for the sailor to steer from his bunk, and a weighted keel that enabled the boat to right itself if capsized in rough weather.

In August of 1966, Chichester began his voyage from Plymouth, England with the intention to stop only once on his circumnavigation.  As often happens with sailing adventures, nature usually has her own ideas.  107 days later, after nearly 14,000 nautical miles, somewhat bruised and with a boat that had been battered by 30 foot waves, the Gipsy Moth entered the harbor in Sydney.  For the second time in 30 years, Chichester once again found himself a reluctant celebrity.  So much so, that Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in absentia while he and his boat were being patched up in Australia.

In order to encourage readership, the tabloid papers began a controversy about Chichester's age and general health and the wisdom of a 65-year-old being "permitted" to continue his voyage.  In a move that still heartens aging watermen, Chichester ignored that nonsense and continued his voyage, arriving back in England 119 days later, setting a record for the fastest circumnavigation ever by a small craft and also for the longest non-stop passage made by a solo sailor in a small boat.  He would mark this accomplishment in his best-selling book, Gipsy Moth Circles the World, and be knighted, now in person, by the Queen while she wielded the same sword with which Elizabeth I had knighted Sir Francis Drake.

The lung ailment returned, however, before Chichester could begin his next adventure, and he would succumb to it in August of 1972.  I was living in the U.K. at the time and his life and achievements were discussed for at least three full days on every channel of the BBC.

Francis Chichester's books are still in print, and it is easy to locate used copies of his story of the circumnavigation.  For sailing fans, the restored Gipsy Moth IV is currently the most popular visitation site at the nautical museum in Greenwich, berthed as it is next to the Cutty Sark.